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Powers v. Social Security Administration

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Jonesboro Division

August 29, 2018



         I. Introduction:

         On February 15, 2015, Vickie Powers applied for disability benefits, alleging disability beginning on October 1, 2014. (Tr. at 24) Ms. Powers' claims were denied initially and upon reconsideration. Id. After conducting a hearing, the Administrative Law Judge (“ALJ”) denied Ms. Powers' application. (Tr. at 36-37) Ms. Powers requested that the Appeals Council review the ALJ's decision, but that request was denied. (Tr. at 1) Therefore, the ALJ's decision stands as the final decision of the Commissioner. Ms. Powers filed this case seeking judicial review of the decision denying her benefits.[1]

         II. The Commissioner's Decision:

         The ALJ found that Ms. Powers had not engaged in substantial gainful activity since the alleged onset date of October 1, 2014. (Tr. at 26) At step two of the five-step analysis, the ALJ found that Ms. Powers had the following severe impairments:

degenerative disc disease, status post anterior cervical discectomy and fusion, osteoarthritis, bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome, obstructive sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, headaches, depression, and anxiety. Id.

         After finding that Ms. Powers' impairments did not meet or equal a listed impairment (Tr. at 26), the ALJ determined that Ms. Powers had the residual functional capacity (“RFC”) to perform the full range of work at the light exertional level, with some limitations. (Tr. at 29) She could only occasionally work overhead with bilateral upper extremities. Id. She could only occasionally stoop, kneel, crouch, or crawl. Id. She could perform simple, routine tasks with only incidental interpersonal contact with the public (no sales or solicitations and a limited amount of meeting and greeting). Id. And she could tolerate only occasional changes in a routine work setting. Id.

         The ALJ found that Ms. Powers was unable to perform any past relevant work. (Tr. at 35) At step five, the ALJ relied on the testimony of a Vocational Expert (“VE”) to find, based on Ms. Powers' age, education, work experience and RFC, that she could perform work in the national economy as production assembler and marker. (Tr. at 36) The ALJ determined, therefore, that Ms. Powers was not disabled. (Tr. at 37)

         III. Discussion:

         A. Standard of Review The Court's role is to determine whether the Commissioner's findings are supported by substantial evidence. Prosch v. Apfel, 201 F.3d 1010, 1012 (8th Cir. 2000).

         “Substantial evidence” in this context means “enough that a reasonable mind would find it adequate to support he ALJ's decision.” Slusser v. Astrue, 557 F.3d 923, 925 (8th Cir. 2009)(citation omitted). In making this determination, the Court must consider not only evidence that supports the Commissioner's decision, but also, evidence that supports a contrary outcome. The Court cannot reverse the decision, however, “merely because substantial evidence exists for the opposite decision.” Long v. Chater, 108 F.3d 185, 187 (8th Cir. 1997) (citation omitted).

         B. Ms. Powers' Arguments on Appeal In this appeal, Ms. Powers maintains that the ALJ's decision to deny benefits is not supported by substantial evidence. She argues that the ALJ should have included manipulative limitations in the RFC based on carpal tunnel syndrome; that the ALJ should have included limitations on concentration, persistence, and pace in the RFC; and that the ALJ improperly discounted the opinion of Kevin Diamond, M.D., Ms. Powers' treating physician.

         A claimant's RFC represents the most she can do despite the combined effects of all credible limitations; and the RFC must account for all credible evidence. McCoy v. Astrue, 648 F.3d 605, 614 (8th Cir. 2011). In determining a claimant's RFC, an ALJ must establish, by competent medical evidence, the physical and mental activity that the claimant can perform in a work setting, after giving appropriate consideration to all of the claimant's impairments. Ostronski v. Chater, 94 F.3d 413, 418 (8th Cir. 1996).

         Ms. Powers argues that because the ALJ ruled carpal tunnel syndrome to be a severe impairment, he should have included manipulative limitations in the RFC. The problem with this argument is that a diagnosis, standing alone, does not equal disability; rather, there must be evidence of a functional loss that shows an inability to engage in substantial gainful activity. See Trenary v. Bowen, 898 F.2d 1361, 1364 (8th Cir. 1990). Ms. Powers has not shown a functional loss due to carpal tunnel syndrome. She did not complain of hand pain regularly to her doctor and did not seek specialized treatment. A diagnostic test revealed mild-to-moderate bilateral carpal tunnel syndrome in August 2016. (Tr. at 689, 700) Objective tests that show mild-to-moderate conditions do not support a finding of disability. Masterson v. Barnhart, 363 F.3d 731, 738-39 (8th Cir. 2004). The only treatment Ms. Powers alluded to with respect to carpal tunnel syndrome was that she wore wrist splints at night. (Tr. at 77) She did not have surgery on either hand. (Tr. at 77-78) The need for only conservative treatment contradicts allegations of disabling pain. Smith v. Shalala, 987 F.2d 1371, 1374 (8th Cir. 1993). The medical evidence does not demonstrate a requirement for manipulative limitations in Ms. Powers' RFC.

         As for mental allegations, the medical evidence likewise fails to support RFC limitations on persistence, pace, and concentration. Ms. Powers admitted she did not seek mental health treatment, although the record shows very brief treatment at Families Inc., in November of 2016. (Tr. at 703-719) The failure to seek regular and continuing treatment contradicts allegations of disability. See Gwathney v. Chater, 104 F.3d 1043, 1045 (8th Cir. 1997). Ms. Powers had normal mental status exams in May 2014, ...

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